Over 45 years ago, on 7 April 1977, all the soldiers serving on the small base in Sharm El-Sheikh, numbering approximately 50, filed into ten or eleven army jeeps and started travelling in convoy on the slow, dusty track towards Eilat. The journey of over 200 km took several hours, Urri, a young officer, recounted. The base in the middle of Sinai was left completely unguarded, populated only by several wives, young children and babies, amongst them Cochava, Urri’s wife and their baby daughter. The convoy eventually entered Eilat and parked at one of the hotels. There, the soldiers watched a basketball match: Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated Mobilgirgi Varese by a single point in the European Champions’ Cup Final, the first time ever an Israeli sport’s team had won a major trophy. The soldiers celebrated the historical victory with a drink, before filing back in the jeeps for the long return journey back to base. It was with this precedent as a backdrop, that I boarded a plane last-minute to Tbilisi, with the hope of seeing Tel Aviv Heat win Israel’s first major rugby trophy in European competition. Urri, my father-in-law for the past 16 years, had sagely advised me to get permission first from my camp commander.
In the end, the Heat came up second best 17 – 29 in a tempestuous game against the Black Lion (Shavi Lomi) in the Rugby Europe Super Cup Final on 17 December, held at the Avchala Stadium in Tbilisi. In front of a partisan crowd, the game was played at a ferocious intensity, particularly by the home team in the opening half, albeit was peppered with some controversial refereeing decisions, that unfortunately have become all too common lately in big matches. Upon reflection, it was a game Black Lion could not afford to lose. I counted 8 of their match day squad were in their National team that defeated Wales 13-12 a few weeks back. Many more had been capped by Georgia, and as the first half unfolded, it was almost as if they were wearing their country test jerseys under their Black Lion fur, and almost as if they were playing a test match at the 54,000 seater Dinamo Arena, rather than playing a club game at Avchala stadium with capacity of 3,200. The Black Lion, a shadow Georgian test side, could not afford to lose to the upstart Tel Aviv Heat, who had gathered in rugby exiles from around the world, who played rugby with a Barbarian-type ethos, and who rallied around the Blue and White degel of Israel. It would be unthinkable for any visiting team to glide into their capital, drink their chacha, and then steal their trophy.
Some of the rugby was brutal. Cal Smid’s blonde hair became highlighted with a ginger tint, courtesy of a cut on his forehead in the first half, and Bradley Thain was flattened off the ball in the second half. In between all this, Jordan Chait was the recipient of a headbutt from none other that the Black Lion and Georgian captain, inside centre Merab Sharikadze. It was unbecoming behaviour from such an experienced player and leader, already a veteran of the last two Rugby World Cups. The incident occurred after the whistle had been blown for a Black Lion penalty, literally in front of the posts. All the spectators saw it, the RE commentators saw it, the coaching staff from both sides saw it. Only the Ref and the two line judges seemed oblivious to it. With no TMO present for referral, and the referee and his assistants apparently unsighted, a clear red card all day, every day, was missed.
If the very clear outcomes did not go the way of the Heat, neither did many of the 50/50 decisions. Right from the first kick-off, Tel Aviv did well to win the ball back, but then Smid was penalised for not releasing on the ground. The Portuguese referee, Duarte, had officiated many more games in Sevens, and his interpretation of the breakdown perhaps reflected this. A few minutes later, Black Lion kicked an early penalty. The Heat were back on the attack, when Kunatani’s pass was intercepted, and play was taken back to their half. The ball was swung out wide on the right flank to #7 flanker Mamamtavrishvili, where he was being shepherded to the line by #14 Mirian Modebadze (both of whom featured in the recent victory at the Principality Stadium in the Welsh Capital). What happened next was either brilliant defending, indifferent refereeing, or a lucky escape. Saunders, in his efforts to get to the ball carrier, collided with Modebadze due to the obstructing line he was running, who stumbled onto the flanker, who dropped the ball over the try line… a lucky break. Not so. Saunders was harshly yellow carded, a penalty try awarded, and the Heat were down 0-10 in as many minutes. It got worse, when minutes later, a missed tackle would lead to outside centre, Tapladze, scoring an unconverted try. The Heat rallied for their first decent attacking chance, came close to the line, and opted to bank a safe penalty to open their account, 3-15. The score remained that way until the very last minute of the first half. There was parity in the set pieces, but missed tackles on defence and some good tactical kicking, allowed the Black Lion to play a lot of the first half in Heat territory. Then came the headbutt in the 28th minute. With more thorough officiating, the correct undisputed decision should have been a red card handed out, and the Heat would have had an opportunity to exit. The penalty was not even reversed, and the home side piled on the pressure until the oldest player on the park, their fullback Khmaladze (with three RWC campaigns to his name), crashed over in the final minute of the half. At 3-22, the Black Lion already had one hand on the trophy, as the players headed back down the tunnel.
The second half started as badly for the Heat. Luka Matkava, their flyhalf, who had also kicked the winning penalty against the Welsh, threw a sneaky dummy, and went in for a score that he converted. 3-29. Coach Musikanth wrung the changes, and two Zulu warrior props, Dlamini and Mdletshe, entered the fray. The Heat started to get some good attacking phases going, and a sniping run from scrumhalf Thain put big Jurie Van Vuuren over for their opening try. Musikanth then gave Muller, the replacement hooker a run. The replacement front row immediately won a crucial scrum penalty, and Muller’s dart from the resulting lineout was bullseye. A huge driving maul started, where the backline joined in, and a flamboyant Fijian in the shape of right wing Nacebe found himself at the bottom of the pile of bodies, over the ball and over the line. Chait’s conversion was good, and suddenly at 17-29, with a full twenty minutes to play, there was still plenty of a time to continue the fight back. The Heat pressed hard, and got into the red zone several times, with each time a handling error or a 50/50 decision transpiring against them. Then in the 68th minute, from a quick throw-in, the headbutt villain shoulder charged Thain without the ball. Again, no intervention from the referees, Thain had to be substituted, and a knock-on was awarded instead to the hosts (#12 has been consequently cited for both incidents). Some valuable momentum was lost, as they went down blazing, in search of the 3rd try. The Black Lion were back-to-back Champions. The Heat played out of their skins in the second half, and outscored their opponents 14-7, but the shelling they received in the first half proved the difference in the end.
Ofer Fabian, President of the Israel Rugby Union, was on hand at the trophy ceremony to give out medals. Earlier, before the game, there was a meet and greet of the TAH team by the new Israeli Ambassador to Georgia, Hadas Meitzad. But the real dignitaries for me, were Ian Cohen and Tanya Silverman, a rugbyphile couple of worth from Ramat Gan, who flew in specially to watch the final. Post-match, and in their eagerness to congratulate the team, they wondered into their changeroom, to be met with the sight of the bare buttocks of scrumhalf/wing Niall Saunders – please note, Tanya, the dress code here is not strictly jacket and tie. Saunders later (ostensibly) initiated an argument in the tunnel, where one of the Black Lion players thought he had insulted the Georgian nation. And they are a proud and patriotic people, especially since the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, with their sensitivities no doubt heightened due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. I’ve yet to come across a shy and reserved scrumhalf, but team manager, Martin Shapiro, was at hand to use his tact and nous to defuse the situation. At the post-match reception, I did manage to exchange a word with Levan Maisashvili, the Black Lion and Georgian coach. He told me that he had once spent a three-month coaching internship at the Sharks, staying on the Mount Edgecombe golf estate, not too far from my home. All this happened 16 years ago, around the time Urri became my father-in-law. Both teams were hounded by young Georgian fans on the way back to the bus, and even I was asked for my TAH beanie and media pass (which had a Black Lion insignia). I declined – after the dust-up in the tunnel I was not feeling charitable.
However, any gloom of defeat was banished at a team dinner at a restaurant on Merab Kostava Street (Kostava, in case you were wondering, was a Georgian dissident, musician and poet, who led the protest movement in Georgia against Soviet Union). I quizzed Pete Sickle, TAH CEO, about future plans for the team into 2023. There are some exciting options on the table, but none of which are confirmed, so I cannot divulge in print yet. Pete asked me pointedly if one could tell that the team had actually lost in the final earlier? The beer was flowing like the nearby Kura river, and songs were being belted out. The Island boys warmed up with a harmonious intonation of Hallelujah, which was followed by a rousing Shosholoza. The Israelis led with the folk song El’Ma’ayan before Swing low sweet chariots reverberated around the restaurant. The Gwijo Ohh aah bamba wena was sung with gusto, and Thain was back on his feet, leading a war cry about a boomslang. But I’m originally from Durban, so obviously the Afrikaans was mostly lost by me.
In my earlier report on the drawn pool game in Kutasi against Black Lion, I mentioned that present-day Kutasi is thought to be the site of ancient Colchis, where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. Kevin and the Rugganauts too are on their quest for their Golden Fleece. This final was but a battle on their journey, where their legend only increased. It was an excellent achievement by Musikanth’s Rugganauts in making the final, but even if they had won the RE Super Cup this year, this was not the ends to their means. The stated objective of Tel Aviv Heat is to be a vehicle for developing rugby in Israel to the highest possible level, for local players and at international competition. It was a privilege witnessing this team play some attractive, uncompromising rugga this year and bring credit to Israeli sport in 2022. I can’t wait to see them back in action in 2023.